« IPA Single Image Award 'Surreal and Disturbing' | Main | Judge Defends Choice »

Tuesday, 26 October 2010


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I've participated in a number of art shows that include photography as a category. There is usually only one juror as the juror is paid and they can only afford one so I can't speak to the politics. However, the general consensus among the artists (and photographers if you care to draw that distinction) is that whichever piece wins has as much to do with the juror's tastes as the quality of the work.

As far as that goes, my boys take music lessons and participate in competitions. For one such competition the teacher learned ahead of time the juror was to be jazz teacher at a local college, and so gave my son a jazz song to learn.

At the end of the day, a juror can attempt to be as analytical as possible, but I doubt that any human being could avoid their own prejudices and preferences. The only thing that could make such competitions more fair is to not announce who the juror's are ahead of time to avoid front loading entries that might play into a juror's tastes.

>there was only one where I got to set the rules and parameters myself

Was that the one in PT where you picked a photo of peasants in Kamchatka with buckets of potatoes as the winner? I looked through that magazine a week or so ago and agree that the photos all stand up well, even if I didn't like them all so much.


I am taking only "emerging" photographers (those who started serious photography within the past 5-10 years) into consideration, mostly those posting in Flicker, Lightstalker, TrekEarh, Photoholik etc, most of them not yet professionals. I choose this one (http://www.flickr.com/photos/7889576@N05/482036214/).
More from this fellow can be seen at:




What about a combination of the two systems? Start with a panel of, say, five judges. Each judge selects his or her favourite (without input from the other judges, of course). This group of (at most) five photos becomes the new pool of contenders. For the second stage of the process, each judge would select his or her second and third favourite photos, with (for example) three points and one point awarded for second and third, respectively. The photo garnering the most points in the second round is the winner. The judge selecting the winning photo in the first round would defend the choice.

This would ensure that 1) the winning photo was strong enough to be the favourite of at least one judge, and 2) it has a wider appeal among the other judges. A couple of details to be resolved would be how to resolve tied scores in the second round, and how to handle a photo that two judges select in the first round - would it win outright, or would it progress to the second round on even footing with the other photos?

I'd pick something from my own portfolio!

No, not really. Maybe this marks me as impossibly lame, but I'd start by flipping through the photos I'd "favorited" on Flickr. There are a lot of pictures I really enjoy on that list, and a lot of photographers who have plenty of talent, but aren't full-time professionals. Perhaps this is me projecting a bit, but I'd rather see an award (especially at this scale) given to an "unknown" who struggle to find an audience. Flickr is one place where photographers who might otherwise work in complete obscurity can be seen (theoretically) by the whole world, and I'd love to use it to help bring to the world's attention someone who might otherwise be missed.

I feel art is essentially an emotional thing. Good art shifts something inside, and not inside my head. Thus the "I can't explain it, but I know it when I see it." response of many who are asked about their choices.

I think I would take those images that have an effect on me when I first see them. Then I'd live with that first cut for a while, hanging on my walls, as screensaver images, or some such. Slowly, I expect individual images would lose their appeal, while others would grow on me.

Recently, we bought a photograph as a gift, mostly as Carol's choice. As I lived with it for a week or so in the recipient's house, it kept growing on me, 'til I wished we'd bought it for ourselves. (The ones we bought for ourselves are great, though.)

Had I the time and patience, after a while I would go through the first pass rejects again, to see which might then qualify for the further selection process.

Would it easily and naturally get down to a single winner? I don't know, but I'm willing to try it. I assume the judge is paid too? <;~)>

Judge Moose

I'd pick the photograph that left me gob-smacked and breathless. Then I'd try to figure out why it had that effect on me and make an attempt to articulate the reason to others.

And if (being, as Pooh put it, a bear of very little brain) I didn't understand my response or couldn't explain it ... tough. The Powers That Be probably wouldn't invite me to act as a judge again and everyone would live happily ever after.

But I'd still stick to my basic criterion: a work of art in any field should grab me -- in the chest, in the gut, maybe in the genitals -- and leave me at least briefly at a loss for words. After all, we're discussing a photograph, not a prize-winning essay; the intellectual component should take a back seat.

"How to Judge A Photo Contest" - I think step one is to commit to being a judge and to follow through. ;-)

Still, I don't think "...what ends up happening is that a compromise is reached that everyone can live with...but unfortunately it's also often a choice with which no one is 100% happy."

Well, the contest winner might be 100% happy. This guy was thrilled:
And it was a clear consensus (without acrimony) to award it... I'm just sayin.

Photographic contests have their place without a doubt, and quite often it is fairly easy to come up with a short list, but I cannot imaging how judges reduce their shortlists to just one.

Like any other art form, once the image passes a certain qualitative threshold (which may differ for different judges) the "winner" must necessarily be judged solely on the basis of the judge's own habits, preferences and maybe even what s/he had for breakfast. There can never be a right choice, it is just so subjective.

Dear Mike, you have just exposed the flaw in all systems that require concensus.

Concensus is the art of making the least worst choice. It is, therefore, the art of mediocrity.

You could not have summed up the Turner prize jury any better.

Your panel idea I like a lot. It's honest.

Mike Cole,
And, how do you prevent judges from picking pictures they feel would appeal to the other judges, and so be helped along towards the ultimate goal? Not a huge problem, but another subtlety to think about.


"Was that the one in PT where you picked a photo of peasants in Kamchatka with buckets of potatoes as the winner?"

That's the one. I actually haven't seen that issue in a few years. Hope I still have it somewhere.


I don't remember if this was mentioned here before: In the interest of transparency of process, Canteen magazine published a selection of the judges' comments for their 2010 Canteen photography awards.


In their words:

"We are publishing these comments not because we enjoy handing down judgment, but because we wish to offer insight into how the winners were chosen. Too often the methodology of photography competitions is opaque at best and nepotistic at worst. We'd simply like to be honest."

I found this refreshing. I also found it interesting that there were two rounds of judging, and that the entrants got to vote for their own favorite.

As it happens I have just been through being part of a three judge panel in a photo contest. There was no big prize involved though and in the end my first choice was not chosen because I was looking at the images as a photographer and the sponsoring organization (an outdoor recreation club) had their own requirements plus there was a bit of club politics thrown into the mix. We compromised.

If the choice were entirely mine my first criteria would be 'does the photo speak to me?'. Does it make me want to look at it, examine it, enter into the situation it depicts? Secondarily I would look at the craftsmanship of the photo, how well it was done but if the image lacks the power to engage the viewer it doesn't matter how expertly it was produced. I realize that there is more than a little subjectivity in that approach but making photographs is subjective.

Every time I read something about contests in the arts, I feel I'm very fortunate to be part of a community Photography Club where there has not been ANY contests or judging in the 5 years it's been in operation.

In our first couple of months of operation, we arranged a weekend course on "How to Judge" thinking that this is part of a Photography Club's activities. But at the next meeting after the course, no-one wanted to have anything to do with contests in the club and it's stayed that way for nearly 5 years now.

We do have a monthly image meeting when each member can submit two images in each of three topics, but there is no attempt to judge. We just give feedback and encouragement.

Jim Swift

>>You alone are charged with finding, from any source, a single photograph that you think is remarkable enough to deserve such special distinction.<<

As stated it's an absurd task. It only becomes more reasonable as the parameters become more narrowly defined. And even then, what does it really matter? Some of the most acclaimed photographers of all time never won a photo contest.

I'd bestow the prize on Bruce Robbins, the photographer who took the photo of the man and dog outside the fish and chip shop on this page:


I don't personally know the photographer but I did post a comment on that page back in April.

The last photo to thoroughly impress me was this one: http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/10/a_north_korean_anniversary_and.html#photo33

Both their expressions are so powerful. They showcase their whole lives in just this one frame.

Hi Mike,
Somehow the url of my selected photo got screwed up...the last parentheses and the period should not be in the url. Here is the correct url:


For the monthly competition, our photography club finally gave up on individual judges and allowed everyone present to vote for their favorite. The results are (sort of) predictable and, to a certain degree, based on "fan club" membership but often good choices.

I would rather judges decide according to their own tastes and interests. It's likely to be a more educated choice than if they tried to judge styles or genres they find uninteresting, which makes it more likely that the winner will have real merit.

I guess I'm saying that it's important to find the right judge(s) for a particular event.

But the point I wanted to make is that there are inherent problems of aesthetic competitions and judging that can't be solved by methodology.

"But I'll bet if any four of the people who write for TOP had to agree on just one picture to single out for a prize, we'd have a lot of trouble."

So, ummm, how about a TOP photo contest to find out?

It's interesting thinking about what goes into judging and selecting images on merit. A photographer friend of mine once asked a bunch of us friends and relatives to look over some of his images and select one that we thought would be good to enter in a photography show.

However, it turned out that he wasn't really entering a show; he just was asking in a sneaky way (he thought) what we liked ourselves, as we discovered when our holiday presents that year were mounted enlargements of the images we had chosen.

I still feel sort of annoyed with that, because what I think will appeal to a larger group or to a cadre of jaded judges isn't always the same as what I'd want hanging on my wall. (So now I have an interesting artistic image that I don't display, because it's not really to my own personal taste.)

Wow, I have done a number of these with nothing like the problems you describe. I really like the interaction and listening to other views. Even when I get beaten into a pulp, well maybe less so then. But usually my fellow judges can defend their ideas to my edification, maybe because I know so little.
And I am the moron that Ctein got to quote in his darkroom wall-color tirade. (Heck, what did I know, I only print on two materials, B&W and color neg, pan-chromatic is a whole 'nother world)

My personal opinion: Contests pitting art against art to determine which is "best" are a bad idea.

Photography is such a vast and varied terrain that contests virtually demand discrete categories, each with its own criteria for excellence. How would you pick a winner between 'Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath' and 'Moonrise, Hernandez'? Between Karsh's Winston Churchill and Stanley Forman's 'Soiling of Old Glory'?

Some photo competitions are more for photographers and some more for artists whose medium is photography.

The former is more populist and just about anyone who looks at the final picks will think they are good photos.

But the "art photography" competitions are more complicated. The judges will be intimately acquainted with the entrants' previous body of work. So the images selected will not be chosen as stand-alone pictures that the "man on the Clapham omnibus" will be able to appreciate.

The chances of someone not already in the art photography scene getting into the final selections are very small. Michelle Sank gets a free pass on the normal criteria by which standard or populist photography is judged, because the judges know her work they know that she can do other things, but has here chosen not to. So obviously she is trying to do something else. But what? And they move on from there.

Is this all a bit incestuous? Absolutely! But I do have some sympathy for it - she entered that photo knowing it would have a good chance of winning this particular competition. Would she have entered that same image in a different competition? I doubt it very much.

By way of analogy: some people love and appreciate improvised Jazz music. But to me it simply sounds cacophonous and ridiculous and pretentious beyond my comprehension - my reaction to Jazz music is much like Michael's initial reaction to this picture. I realise though that my ear is completely uneducated in this regard. And I can certainly appreciate other kinds of music. But Jazz? Sorry I just don't get it. I imagine that with some schooling I might learn to understand and possibly like it.

Thanks for this article Mike. An insight!

Any chance of seeing the peasants in Kamchatka photograph (if you are able to find it)?

Pet peeve, the attempts to categorize, rate, rank, pick winners and losers in the arts. Especially music, top 40, best vocal performance, gold, platinum on and on. And the artists are the ones who care the least, unless they're artists for all the wrong reasons (which is shockingly common).

There has been some vibrant discussion in Australia earlier this year about the judging for the Moran Photographic Prize, an $80,000 prize won by the same photographer two years in a row with a single judge system each year who both know the winner well... You can read about the issues here - http://www.josephfeil.com/snapshots/?p=428


Choosing one photograph.... a great question. And equally interesting to see what others like too.

As I was wading through Flickr yesterday I came across, by sheer chance, the work of a photographer I had seen somewhere and sometime before, Alexander Gronsky. Breathtaking work. (Unfortunately I can't link directly to particular photos on his website, but his work is well-worth the mouse-clicking). Here's one that I think warrants that $2500 dollar prize-

Go to:


From the menu on the top right, select 'artwork' and, from this, select 'the edge', and then select the fourth photograph into this project.

For more of his work in Flickr, go to:



In my opinion the quest for finding "the best picture" is flawed. This is simply not the right question. You definitely won't find photographic talent with this approach, because with luck everybody will produce the odd one or two good picture.

However, if you are a real photographic talent then you can produce whole series of excellent images. Thus, in a competition it would make more sense if people would be judged on the merit of their portfolio (say their best 10 images) rather than based on a single picture.

You can spot a promising talent easily from a portfolio, simply because it is unlikely to produce a good portfolio purely by chance.
Also, a portfolio will tell a lot about your style.

btw, that's exactly the procedure that gets you into art school (or not...).

As someone who has (albeit rarely) entered competitions, and even more rarely (OK once) been a judge... the key points are:

1. You have to enter it to be a contender. just like Miss World. It's a choice to participate, and so the winner is not automatically the "worlds best photographer" etc etc.

2. You have to ask what the competition rules and assumptions are, not just about what is admissible (Photoshopped? posed? not published or commissioned?) but also what in the terms of the competition constitutes a good or winning photograph.

3. The judge has 'come out' and talked about looking for 'challenging' photography, ie not pretty sunsets and derivatives of previous trailblazers. OK theres maybe some grey areas here, but it helps.

4. So this photograph has, certainly, stirred it up in the way a challenging image does. When I first saw it, maybe I was surprised it had won, but not having seen the other contenders, I still took on its merits. yes it does pose awkward questions, its not a cliche image of poverty, it reminds us that all poverty is relative, his possession of reasonable if dirty clothes, a loaf of bread and a magazine enables us to relate more closely to this individual than a naked and starving distended-belly child in Ethiopia (sorry, cruel but true). Its an image of the subtler poverty and hopelessness, as much mental as physical, to which relatively affluent you I can succumb, through misfortune and despair. Don't need anyone to start bullshitting about tonal values and dynamics of juxtaposition, as if these minutiae were what made it a winner instead of a loser. It's the visceral impact of "yes, actually, that really could be me, doesn't take too much imagination".

One of my favorite things at our annual state fair is looking at all the photos that didn't merit any awards. The ones with awards are often boring.

Art is subjective. That's the starting point.

Still, beyond the artificiality of judging contests, there are lots and lots of situations where people have to choose a photograph -- editors have limited page space, art directors are only doing so many billboard designs for this campaign, print collectors (and museum curators) have limited money (and wall space and storage space), and so on.

Most of these have built-in goals -- selling a product, representing the artist's work, telling the news story, pleasing the collector, or whatever. Also, because the goals are human-scale (except maybe "representing the artist's work"), it's easier for the judges to say at some point "okay, I've done what I can, this is a good enough choice", without having to claim any sort of perfection.

Some contests are so broad that they could be interpreted as awarding a prize for the "best photo of the year"; I hope nobody takes that TOO seriously. But the same processes of choosing can be applied, if you ignore the stated over-broad goal and substitute something else more reasonable.

The discussion of why people like a photo, or prefer one to another, is generally quite interesting. I'd like to hear more of it. It does work best when vocabulary and knowledge level match well enough for communication to actually occur; and I'm not sure I can always tell the difference between talk that goes over my head, and vacuous generalities (and I know I'm inclined to take the negative interpretation there when in doubt).

In science fiction novels, the most important award is the Hugo award, voted on by the fans who are members of the World Science Fiction Convention each year. Especially when I was growing up, the Hugo winners were really important. "Best SF novel" is of course an immensely narrower category than "best photograph" (though no less subjective), but even so we argue about the results a lot. The short-list that comes out of the nomination process is in some ways more interesting (5 novels, all serious contenders for the award); they're essentially always good and interesting, or else of a "kind" that I know I don't like (but lots of other people do).

Well, Stephen DuPont is a very experienced and well regarded PJ here, especially noted for his work in conflict zones. I haven't read his comments on the winning image for the Moran prize but I have viewed the images on the Moran site.
I have to say i think the image chosen is unremarkable, even ordinary and there are several I think much better. The one he chose could have been taken by any ferry commuter in Sydney.

I am still unsure of what is the purpose of contests in photography... a juried selection for an exhibit is a good thing, but choosing a single winning photograph with prize money/gift? I am totally puzzled. That is my bias.

That said, I do not see anything wrong with this selection. The reason being is that I have not put any weight on the abilities of these judges, so it does not have any relevance to what I would have chosen.

So, to whom do these judges have a responsibility? To themselves? To the sponsors? To the photographers? To the public? If this question is answered, then we can see something wrong with the selection. To the public? This is a shame. To the photographers, another shame. To themselves, well, if it worked, happy for them. To the sponsors? Well they must love the controversy.

« What would you choose? Anything come to mind? »
I would choose a really good photo from the least-known photographer in the bunch... because the (money) prize is nothing, and given a bunch of good and deserving photos, I pick the one that benefits a photographer the most, and that is the exposure that the contest can bring.

I've been a judge for various photo
exhibitions. I start off rejecting all photos of children and pets.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007